By Darlene Donloe
COMPTON — When life gave Karneisha Christian-Stewart lemons, she followed the old adage and literally made lemonade.
Now she owns a successful business called Pucker Up Lemonade Company, where, using her father’s original lemonade recipe, she sells more than 100 flavors of lemonade, infused waters and iced tea. Some of the lemonade flavors include lavender and mango. There is also a peach cobbler flavored ice tea and zero sugar products.
The company’s slogan is “When life gives you lemons, pucker up!”
Although she has achieved her dream of becoming a business owner, Christian-Stewart, a married mother of two, and a Compton native, calls her entrepreneurial success “an accident.”
She didn’t know it at the time, but her journey to launching Pucker Up! began in the early 1990s, when she was a teenager. She landed a job in the Financial Aid Office at Compton College. The school would go on to play a major role in her life.
After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Compton College. Once there, she applied herself — immersing herself in student government, the women’s basketball team and more. After graduating with an associate degree, Christian-Stewart enrolled at Concordia University and majored in behavioral science and anthropology.
She also attended the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center before attending Los Angeles Southwest College where she trained to become a nurse.
Christian-Stewart, 46, said all of the previous experience played a pivotal role in her march toward entrepreneurship.
She noticed there was a farmers’ market on the Compton College campus and got the bright idea to sell lemonade “inspired by my dad’s recipe.”
“It was a no-brainer,” she said. “Turns out, people really liked it.”
She sold drinks at school fundraisers, parties, street fairs and corporate events.
“We set up a lemonade stand in 2011 and the rest is history,” said Christian-Stewart, who still participates in the Farmers’ Market at Compton College because it’s “near and dear” to her heart.
“It was a big hit. It was actually a hobby, an outlet,” she said. “I was transitioning out of nursing and didn’t know what I was going to transition to. It was a lot of soul searching. It was a difficult thing. I asked myself why I no longer wanted to do nursing. I never wanted to be a nurse that showed up for a paycheck. I didn’t have an exit strategy. I realized I’m a creative.”
She admits getting the flavor of the lemonade “just right” took some time.
“We had to get the formulation right,” Christian-Stewart said. “I had to double and triple clean the kinds of lemons my dad would bring home and use, and then formulate and reformulate. We had to figure out the formula to make sure it was special.”
Christian-Stewart’s father, a pipefitter, was originally from Rodessa, Louisiana. She describes him as having “a big sweet tooth.”
“When I was growing up as part of a family of eight, we didn’t have Minute Maid or SunnyD,” she said. “He made lemonade. He had a gardening and tree service and would come home with lots of dirty, misshaped lemons and we would wash them and make lemonade.”
Today, she gets the lemons from the community and her husband’s lemon tree in Carson.
“We also began sourcing lemons anywhere we could get lemons,” she said. “In the beginning, I would ask people if I could pick their tree. At the time, I had no shame.”
When the family-owned business was in its infancy, Christian-Stewart and her husband, who is in law enforcement, were the only ones processing the lemons. They did a lot of research and development by giving it to people to taste.
“I had a lot of trial runs when it came to perfecting the process. It was an exhausting effort,” she said. “We did the picking, hauling, washing, and juicing. It was a lot of work.”
What began as a hobby for her and her husband, Ken, quickly became a bonafide business.
In 2011, after 15 years as a pediatric nurse, she knew it was time to leave the profession and start something new. That’s when she decided to start Pucker Up! By 2012, she said she knew she had something.
By 2019, she was ready to open her first brick-and-mortar store.
As luck would have it, during the time they were looking for a storefront, a shop owner who sold specialty foods was retiring and looking for someone to take over the lease of a commercial space.
“We secured the lease with a handshake deal,” Christian-Stewart said. “We opened the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2019. We haven’t looked back.”
A year after opening in January 2019, everything shut down due to COVID. The neophyte business owners, who supplied lemonade to health care workers during the shutdown, had to pivot to curbside service.
“It was a real adjustment,” Christian-Stewart said. “We got hit hard because a big part of our revenue was from events — but everything was shut down. But we made it happen. Things picked up in 2022 when about 50% of our events returned. By 2023, the other events came back. It was touch and go for a while. We survived and thrived. It brought me gratitude.”
Pucker Up offers souvenir cups for $15, with “all you can drink” refills for $3. Prepackaged beverages are also sold by partner retail locations. Plans are for mass production and distribution, and franchise opportunities.
The company will roll out a food truck this year.
“We will offer a small food menu with unique and delicious [entrees] to accompany everyone’s favorite lemonade flavors,” Christian-Stewart said. “We will have food including hot dogs, chili dogs, vegan carrot dogs, cornbread waffles topped with chili, rice and cheese, lobster tail poached in butter and dipped in cornbread batter and fried (lobster corn dog), chicken strips and pastrami.”
Pucker Up also offers “boutique” beverage catering with colorfully decorated drink stations, tea parties, and mocktail drinks pressed, stirred and ready to order.
In 2023, she received a Quick N Split license, which will allow her to operate the popular family-owned hamburger stand known for its homemade ice cream.
“We wanted to expand to new customers and create new offerings that generate more foot traffic,” Christian-Stewart said. “It was a legacy factor. It has a following. We were in the right place at the right time.”
New this year is Pucker Up Lemonade & Company.
“People who want to license our brand and sell it, will be able to do so,” Christian-Stewart said. “We’ll be able to license the opportunity. The new venture is set to launch in the spring of 2024. The licensed operators will be considered the ‘company’. We are empowering people to make money off an already successful brand. It’s a win-win. At first, I didn’t see where Pucker Up! was going to go.
I’m still surprised.”
Pucker Up Lemonade Company, is located at 723 E. Compton Blvd., in Compton. Hours are 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.